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An Interview with A. J. Swoboda, author of The Gift of Thorns

A. J. SWOBODA (PhD, Birmingham) is assistant professor of Bible and theology at Bushnell University. He also leads a Doctor of Ministry program, focusing on Christian formation and soul care at Friends University. He is the author of several books, including the award-winning Subversive Sabbath and After Doubt. He cohosts the Slow Theology podcast with Nijay Gupta. He is married to Quinn and is the proud father of Elliot. They live and work on an urban farm in Eugene, Oregon, with their dog Diggory.

In this interview, Nijay Gupta interviews A.J. Swoboda about his new book The Gift of Thorns. Gupta and Swoboda cohost the Slow Theology podcast.

Nijay: Aren’t theologians supposed to write big books on esoteric themes like the Trinity and salvation? Why is a study on desire an important topic
for you?

AJ: Some time ago, I read an article by Gerald Bray entitled “Rescuing Theology from the Theologians.” Bray’s point was simple: too many theologians have developed an expertise in obfuscating gospel truth and biblical reality. The result, Bray surmised, is that theology ends up impotent, diffused of its power and vitality—especially when disconnected from the church.

Naturally, as a theologian at a Christian University, I’m invited to walk alongside students as they think through their faith. As I have listened, it dawned on me how often desire is central to the conversation. I began to feel that not writing on desire would be in violation of my calling. Borrowing Luther, “If I profess. . . every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are. . . attacking, I am not confessing Christ.” The world and the Devil seem to be attacking desire, so I decided to write a book about it—because that’s what my students want to understand.

Nijay: What inspires you to tackle heavy—even dark—topics of human experience in your writing?

AJ: As a teacher, one of the most powerful things I do is decide what is going to be discussed in the classroom. Curriculum designers talk about three levels of curriculum: explicit, hidden, and null. Null curriculum is teaching that we do by not talking about it.

The church presents the hard reality of life to the theologian. Not everything is esoteric musings about philosophical theology. Those questions are important, but the gift of the church is to moor the theologian to conversations that our world is asking—about sexuality, gender, marijuana, violence, political tribalism, etc. I have noticed a temptation to skirt around them largely to save my job or avoid being “canceled.” Along the way, it dawned on me that if I succumbed to this fear, then I would be teaching the church to do the same. How can I ask the church to be bold when I’m saving my own bacon by not talking about it. The Gift of Thorns tackles one of those uncomfortable issues head-on.

Nijay: If you could have dinner with any two people and talk about the theology of desire, who would you choose? Why?

AJ: First, I’d want to sit down with my grandfather, Rudy, who passed away when I was still young. Rudy spent his life on Montana’s Bighorn River catching and releasing her most glorious trout. I’d want to sit down and hear about the desires he had for his life and what propelled him forward. We are creatures shaped by the desires around us. As I continue to enter into learning about my own story, I know that the desires of my grandfather shaped who I am more than I may ever know, and I’d like to know more about them and by

Second, hands down, Augustine. For no other reason than to come to grips with the daily struggles and gnawing temptations he faced. His writings hold a kind of gritty substance—he is one of the most honest theologians in the church’s long life, a theology, I admit, we are often in short supply of. I’d want to sit with him and talk about his own encounter with the thorns of the flesh. Who did he talk with about his own lingering temptations? What did his thought life consist of? What did he do when he woke up in the mornings? I suspect his honesty would make many moderns uncomfortable.

This interview was originally published in the Spring 2024 Zondervan Academic Catalog. View our most recent catalog at

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